Simone Weil: The waning of the working class, technique and the rise of fascism

The only hope of socialism resides in those who have already brought about in themselves, as far as is possible in the society of today, that union between manual and intellectual labour which characterizes the society we are aiming at.

Simone Weil

This is the second of a series of essays exploring dimensions of fascism, as the latter seemingly closes in about us.

Following a first essay by Gérard Granel, in which he traces the grounds of fascism, Nazism and Stalinism to an ontological mutation – with finite forms of life violently diluted in forms stripped of any limits -, we share below an earlier essay (1933) by Simone Weil that sees fascism, Stalinism and modern capitalism as expressions of technical and managerial oppression; a form of oppression that defies any simple or reductive analysis in terms of class struggle. Indeed, for Weil, the technical dominion of industrial, factory labour destroys the very possibility of a rebellious/revolutionary working class. In its place, emerges an anonymous, undifferentiated mass, the fertile ground of fascist demagogy.

Prospects. Are we heading for the proletarian revolution?

I would not give a farthing for the mortal whom empty hopes can set afire.

Sophocles, Ajax, 477–8

The long-foreseen moment has arrived when capitalism is on the point of seeing its development arrested by impassable barriers. In whatever way we interpret the phenomenon of accumulation, it is clear that capitalism stands essentially for economic expansion and that capitalist expansion has now nearly reached the point where it will be halted by the actual limits of the earth’s surface. And yet never have there been fewer premonitory signs of the advent of socialism. We are in a period of transition; but a transition towards what? No one has the slightest idea. All the more striking, therefore, the carefree security with which we settle down in this transition period as though it were a definite stage, so much so that considerations concerning the crisis of the system have almost everywhere become commonplaces. Certainly, we can always go on believing that socialism will arrive the day after tomorrow, and make a duty or a virtue of this belief; so long as we go on taking, day by day, the day after tomorrow to mean the next day but one after today, we shall be sure not to be disappointed; but such a state of mind is difficult to distinguish from that of those worthy people who believe, for instance, in the Last Judgment. If we want to traverse this sombre age in manly fashion, we shall refrain, like the Ajax of Sophocles, from letting empty hopes set us afire.

Throughout history men have struggled, suffered and died to free the oppressed. Their efforts, when they did not remain sterile, have never led to anything except the replacing of one oppressive régime by another. Marx, who had observed this, thought he was able to demonstrate scientifically that things were different in our day, and that the struggle of the oppressed would now lead to a true emancipation, not to a new oppression. It is this idea, which we have preserved as an article of faith, that we need to examine afresh, unless we mean systematically to close our eyes to the events of the past twenty years. Let us spare ourselves the disillusionments of those who, having fought for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, discovered one fine day that what they had got was, as Marx says, Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery. But they at any rate were able to draw some lesson from the surprises of history; sadder is the lot of those who perished in 1792 or 1793, in the street or on the frontiers, fully convinced that with their lives they were purchasing the freedom of mankind. If we are to perish in the battles of the future, let us do our best to prepare ourselves to perish with a clear vision of the world we shall be leaving behind.

The Paris Commune was an example not only of the creative power of the working-class masses in movement, but also of the fundamental impotence of a spontaneous movement when it comes to fighting against organized forces of repression. August 1914 marked the bankruptcy of proletarian mass organizations, both on the political and the trade-union planes, within the framework of the system. From then onwards it became necessary to abandon once and for all the hopes placed in this mode of organization not only by the reformists, but by Engels. On the other hand, October 1917 ushered in new and radiant prospects. At last the means had been found of combining legal with illegal action, the systematic labours of disciplined militants with the spontaneous seething of the masses. All over the world communist parties were to be formed to which the Bolshevik party would pass on its knowledge and technique; they were to replace social democracy, already described by Rosa Luxemburg, in August 1914, as a “stinking corpse”, and very soon to disappear from the stage of history; and they were to seize power within a very short time. The political régime set up spontaneously by the workers of Paris in 1871, then by those of St. Petersburg in 1905, was to become solidly entrenched in Russia and so on to embrace the entire civilized world. Of course, the crushing of the Russian Revolution by the brutal intervention of foreign imperialism might blast these brilliant prospects; but, unless such a thing occurred, Lenin and Trotsky were certain of introducing into history precisely this particular series of transformations and not any other.

Fifteen years have elapsed. The Russian Revolution has not been crushed. Its enemies, both abroad and at home, have been vanquished. And yet nowhere on the surface of the globe—including Russia—are there any soviets; nowhere on the surface of the globe—including Russia—is there any communist party properly so called. The “stinking corpse” of social democracy has continued for fifteen years to infect the political atmosphere, which is hardly the action of a corpse; if at last it has largely been swept away, this has been the work of fascism, not of the Revolution. The régime born of October, which had either to expand or perish, has for fifteen years accommodated itself very well to the boundaries set by its national frontiers; its role abroad now consists, as events in Germany clearly demonstrate, in stifling the revolutionary activities of the proletariat. The reactionary bourgeoisie have at last perceived that it has very nearly lost all force of expansion, and are wondering whether they could not now make use of it by arranging defensive and offensive alliances with it with a view to future wars (cf. the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung for 27th May). The truth is that this régime resembles that which Lenin thought he was setting up in so far as it excludes capitalist property almost entirely; in every other respect it is the exact opposite. Instead of genuine freedom of the press, there is the impossibility of expressing a free opinion, whether in the form of a printed, typewritten or hand-written document, or simply by word of mouth, without running the risk of being deported; instead of the free play between parties within the framework of the soviet system, there is the cry of “one party in power, and all the rest in prison”; instead of a communist party destined to rally together, for the purposes of free co-operation, men possessing the highest degree of devotion, conscientiousness, culture, and critical aptitude, there is a mere administrative machine, a passive instrument in the hands of the Secretariat, which, as Trotsky himself admits, is a party only in name; instead of soviets, unions and co-operatives functioning democratically and directing the economic and political life of the country, there are organizations bearing, it is true, the same names, but reduced to mere administrative mechanisms; instead of the people armed and organized as a militia to ensure by itself alone defence abroad and order at home, there is a standing army, and a police force freed from control and a hundred times better armed than that of the Tsar; lastly, and above all, instead of elected officials, permanently subject to control and dismissal, who were to ensure the functioning of government until such time as “every cook would learn how to rule the State”, there is a professional bureaucracy, freed from responsibility, recruited by cooption and possessing, through the concentration in its hands of all economic and political power, a strength hitherto unknown in the annals of history.

The very novelty of such a régime makes it difficult to analyse. Trotsky persists in saying that we have here a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, a “workers’ State”, albeit with “bureaucratic deformations”, and that, as regards the necessity for such a régime to expand or perish, Lenin and he were mistaken only over the time-scale. But when an error in degree attains such proportions we may be permitted to think that an error in kind is involved, in other words a mistake touching the actual nature of the régime of whose conditions of existence a definition is being attempted. Besides, to call a State a “workers’ State” when you go on to explain that each worker in it is put economically and politically at the complete disposal of a bureaucratic caste, sounds like a bad joke. As for the “deformations”, this term, singularly out of place in the case of a State all of whose characteristics are exactly the reverse of those theoretically associated with a workers’ State, seems to imply that the Stalin régime is a sort of anomaly or disease of the Russian Revolution. But the distinction between the pathological and the normal has no theoretical validity. Descartes used

to say that a clock out of order is not an exception to the laws governing clocks, but a different mechanism obeying its own laws; in the same way we should regard the Stalin régime, not as a workers’ State out of order, but as a different social mechanism, whose definition is to be found in the wheels of which it is composed and which functions according to the nature of those wheels. And, whereas the wheels of a workers’ State would consist of the democratic institutions of the working class, those of the Stalin régime consist exclusively of the various parts of a centralized administrative system on which the whole economic, political and intellectual life of the country is entirely dependent.

For such a régime, the dilemma “expand or perish” not only is no longer valid, but no longer even has any meaning; the Stalin régime, considered as a system of oppression, is no whit more contagious than was the French Empire for France’s neighbours. The view according to which the Stalin régime constitutes a mere transition, either in the direction of socialism or in that of capitalism, also seems arbitrary. The oppression of the workers is evidently not a step in the direction of socialism. The “bureaucratic and military machine” which constituted, in Marx’s eyes, the real obstacle in the way of a continuous march towards socialism through the simple accumulation of successive reforms, has no doubt not lost this property, seeing that contrary to what was foreseen, it has survived the capitalist economy. As for the restoration of capitalism, which could only take place as a sort of colonization, this is not at all impossible, in view of the greed that characterizes all imperialisms and of the economic and military weakness of the U.S.S.R.; however, the rivalries between the various imperialisms have, so far, prevented the ratio of forces from being overpoweringly against Russia. At all events, the Soviet bureaucracy is in no sense tending towards a renunciation of its powers, so that the term “transitional” would in any case be wrong. There is nothing which entitles us to assert that the Russian State bureaucracy is preparing the ground for any domination other than its own, whether that of the proletariat or that of the bourgeoisie. Actually, all the embarrassed explanations by which the militants trained under Bolshevism try to escape from having to recognize the fundamental falsity of the prospects advanced in October 1917 are based on the same preconceived notion as were those prospects themselves, namely, on the assertion, regarded as a dogma, that there can at the present time be only two types of State, the capitalist State and the workers’ State. This dogma is brutally denied by the development of the régime deriving from the October Revolution. No workers’ State has ever yet existed on the earth’s surface, except for a few weeks in Paris in 1871, and perhaps for a few months in Russia in 1917 and 1918. On the other hand, for nearly fifteen years now, over one-sixth of the globe, there has reigned a State as oppressive as any other which is neither a capitalist nor a workers’ State. Certainly, Marx never foresaw anything of this kind. But not even Marx is more precious to us than the truth.

The other outstanding phenomenon of our time, that is to say fascism, fits no more easily into the categories of classical Marxism than does the Russian State. On this subject, too, of course, there are clichés serving as an escape from the painful obligation of having to think. Just as the U.S.S.R. is a “workers’ State” more or less “deformed”, so fascism is a movement of the lower-middle classes, based on demagogy, and constitutes “the bourgeoisie’s last card before the triumph of the Revolution”. For the degeneration of the workers’ movement has led the theorists to represent the class struggle as a duel, or a game between actively conscious partners, and each social or political event as a manoeuvre by one of these partners—a conception that has no more to do with materialism than has Greek mythology. There exist small groups of high financiers, big industrialists and reactionary politicians who consciously defend what they take to be the political interests of the capitalist oligarchy; but they are as incapable of preventing as they are of arousing a mass movement like fascism, or even of directing it. In point of fact, they have at times assisted it, at times fought against it; they have tried vainly to turn it into a docile instrument and have ended by surrendering to it. Certainly it is the presence of an exasperated proletariat which, for them, makes this surrender a lesser evil. Nevertheless, fascism is something altogether different from a card in their hands. The brutal manner in which Hitler dismissed Hugenberg, as if he were a domestic servant, in spite of Krupp’s protests, is significant in this respect. Nor must it be forgotten that fascism definitely puts an end to that interplay of parties born of the bourgeois régime which no bourgeois dictatorship, even in time of war, had ever yet suppressed; and that it has installed in its place a political régime more or less the same in structure as that of the Russian régime as defined by Tomsky: “One party in power and all the rest in prison.” We may add that the mechanical subordination of the party to the leader is the same in each case, and guaranteed in each case by the police.

But political sovereignty is nothing without economic sovereignty; which is why fascism tends to approach the Russian régime on the economic plane also, by concentrating all power, economic as well as political, in the hands of the Head of the State. Here, however, fascism comes up against capitalist property, which it has no intention of destroying. There lies a contradiction whose outcome it is difficult to foresee. But just as the mechanism of the Russian State cannot be explained merely by “deformations”, so this fundamental contradiction in the fascist movement cannot be explained merely by demagogy. What is certain is that, whereas Italian fascism only attained to the concentration of political power after many long years which exhausted its impetus, national-socialism, which reached the same result in less than six months, still contains immense reserves of energy, and tends to go very much farther. As a report issued by an important German concern clearly shows—L’Humanité quoted it without perceiving its significance—the bourgeoisie is alarmed at the threat of State control, and, indeed, Hitler has set up State organs with sovereign power to condemn workers or owners to ten years’ hard labour and to confiscate businesses.

Vain efforts are made, in the attempt to bring national-socialism at all costs within the Marxist framework, to find at the heart of the movement a disguised form of the class struggle, between the instinctively socialist rank and file and the leaders standing for the interests of big business whose aim is to hoodwink the masses by skilful demagogy. To begin with, nothing entitles us to declare with certainty that Hitler and his lieutenants, whatever their ties with monopolistic capitalism, are mere instruments in its hands. And then, above all, the orientation of the Hitlerite masses, though violently anti-capitalist, is by no means socialist, any more so than the demagogic propaganda of the leaders; for the object is to place the national economy, not in the hands of the producers grouped into democratic organizations, but in the hands of the State apparatus. Now, although it is a long time since the influence of the reformists and the Stalinists made us forget the fact, socialism is the economic sovereignty of the workers and not of the bureaucratic and military machine of the State. What is called the “national-Bolshevik” wing of the Hitler movement is therefore in no sense socialist. It follows that the two political phenomena which dominate our time can neither of them find a place in the traditional picture of the class struggle.

The same applies to a whole series of contemporary movements springing from the post-war period and remarkable for their affinity with both Stalinism and fascism. Such, for example, is the German review Die Tat, which groups together a band of young and brilliant economists, is extremely close to national-socialism, and regards the U.S.S.R. as the model for the future State, save in the matter of the abolition of private property; it is at present advocating a military alliance between Russia and Hitlerite Germany.

In France, we have a few groups, such as that of the review Plans, in which a like ambiguity is found. But the most significant movement of this kind is that technocratic movement which is said in a short space of time to have spread over the whole of the United States. We know that it advocates, within the limits of a closed national economy, the abolition of competition and markets and an economic dictatorship exercised in sovereign fashion by technicians. This movement, which has often been compared to Stalinism and fascism, has all the greater scope in that it appears to be not without influence over the group of intellectuals at Columbia who are at present advising Roosevelt.

Such ideological trends are something absolutely new, giving its own character to our time. For the rest, the present period, however confused and rich in political trends of all kinds, new and old, seems to lack only that very movement which, according to the forecasts, was to constitute its essential feature, namely, the struggle for the economic and political emancipation of the workers. There are, to be sure, scattered here and there and divided by obscure quarrels, a handful of old-time trade unionists and sincere communists; there are even a few small organizations that have preserved wellnigh intact the socialist watchwords. But the ideal of a society governed in the economic and political sphere by co-operation between the workers now inspires scarcely a single mass movement, whether spontaneous or organized; and that at the very moment when, on every hand, there is nothing but talk of the bankruptcy of capitalism.

Faced with this state of things, we are obliged, if we wish to look reality in the face, to ask ourselves whether that which is to take the place of capitalism is not to be a new system of oppression, instead of the free association of producers. I should like in this connection to submit an idea, purely as a hypothesis, for examination by the comrades. We can say, to put it briefly, that up to the present mankind has known two principal forms of oppression, the one (slavery or serfdom) exercised in the name of armed force, the other in the name of wealth thus transformed into capital; what we have to determine is whether these are not now being succeeded by a new species of oppression, oppression exercised in the name of management.

The mere reading of Marx clearly shows that already, half a century ago, capitalism had undergone profound changes of a nature to transform the very mechanism of oppression. This transformation has become more and more pronounced between Marx’s death and the present time, and at a particularly accelerated tempo during the postwar years. We already see in Marx that the phenomenon which makes capitalism what it is, namely, the buying and selling of man-power, has become, in the course of the development of big industry, a subordinate factor in the oppression of the working masses; the decisive moment, so far as the worker’s reduction to slavery is concerned, is no longer the moment when, on the labour market, he sells his time to the boss, but the moment when, having scarcely crossed the threshold of the factory, he is swallowed up by the undertaking. We know Marx’s terrible utterances on this subject: “In craftsmanship and fabrication by hand, the worker makes use of the tool; in the factory, he is at the service of the machine.” “In the factory there exists a dead mechanism, independent of the workers, which incorporates them as living cogs.” “It is only with mechanization that the inversion [of the relationship between the worker and the conditions of work] becomes a reality that can be grasped in the technique itself.” “The separation of the spiritual forces of the process of production from manual work, and the transformation of the former into forces of oppression exercised by capital over labour, is fully accomplished . . . in large-scale industry built up on the basis of mechanisation. The detail of the individual destiny . . . of the worker working at the machine disappears like some squalid trifle before the knowledge, the tremendous natural forces and the collective labour which are crystallized in the machine system and go to make up the owner’s power.”

If we leave out hand-fabrication, which can be regarded as a mere transition, we may say that the oppression of the wage-earners, based, to begin with, essentially on the relationship between property and exchange in the days of small workshops, has become, with the advent of mechanization, a mere aspect of the relationships involved in the very technique of production. To the conflict set up by money between buyers and sellers of labour has been added another conflict, set up by the very means of production, between those who have the machine at their disposal and those who are at the disposal of the machine. The Russian experiment has shown that, contrary to what Marx too readily assumed, the first of these conflicts can be eliminated without entailing the disappearance of the second. In capitalist countries, both conflicts coexist, and this coexistence gives rise to considerable confusion. The same men sell themselves to capital and serve the machine; on the other hand, it is not always the same men who own the capital and run the business.

As a matter of fact, there was still, not so long ago, a class of workmen who, although wage-earners, were not simply living cogs in the service of the machines, but on the contrary carried out their work while using machines with as much freedom, initiative and intelligence as the craftsmen who wields his tool; these were the skilled workmen. This class of workmen, which, in each industrial concern, constituted the essential factor in production, has been more or less swept away by rationalization. Nowadays, a machine-setter has the job of setting a certain number of machines according to the requirements of the work to be carried out, and the work is accomplished under his orders by specialized hands able to handle one type of machine, and one only, always using identical movements, in which intelligence plays no part. Thus a factory is at present divided into two clearly separated camps—those who execute the work without, strictly speaking, taking any active part in it, and those who direct the work without executing anything. Between these two groups composing the personnel of an industrial concern, the machine itself forms an impassable barrier. At the same time, the development of the system of limited companies has created a barrier—less precise, it is true—between those who manage the business and those who own it. A man like Ford, who is both a capitalist and the managing director of a business, nowadays seems to us a survival from the past, as the American economist Pound has remarked. “Industrial concerns”, writes Palewski in a book published in 1928, “tend more and more to get out of the hands of those captains of industry who were the original owner-managers of the business. . . . The age of the tycoons tends more and more to become a thing of the past. We are entering a period that has been called the age of the technicians of management, and these technicians are as far removed from the engineers and the capitalists as are the workmen. The head is no longer a capitalist who owns the business; he has been replaced by a board of technicians. We still live on that past which is so close to us, and the mind has a certain difficulty in grasping this development.”

Here again we are dealing with a phenomenon which Marx had already perceived. But, whereas in Marx’s time the managing staff of the undertaking was hardly more than a team of employees at the service of the capitalists, nowadays, vis-à-vis the small shareholders reduced to the role of mere parasites and the big capitalists mainly concerned with financial manipulations, the “technicians of management” form a distinct social stratum whose importance tends to increase and which absorbs in various ways a considerable proportion of the profits. Laurat, in his book on the U.S.S.R., analysing the mechanism of the exploitation exercised by the bureaucracy, remarks that “the personal consumption of the bureaucrats”—a consumption disproportionate, generally speaking, to the value of the services rendered by them—“effected regularly and as a fixed charge” operates almost independently of capital reserve requirements which figure under the heading “profits” only after “running costs”, that is to say the needs of the bureaucracy, have been covered; and he compares this system to the capitalist system under which “capital reserve requirements come before the payment of dividends”. But he forgets that, although capital reserves come before dividends, the “running costs” in capitalist countries, exactly as in the U.S.S.R., come before the placing to capital reserve. Never has this phenomenon been as striking as today, when undertakings on the verge of bankruptcy, having sacked a host of workmen and working at a third or a quarter of their productive capacity, preserve almost intact a managerial staff composed of a few directors drawing fat fees and clerks who are ill-paid, but whose numbers are out of all proportion to the rate of production. Consequently, there are grouped round the undertaking three quite distinct social strata—the workers, passive instruments of the undertaking, the capitalists whose authority rests on an economic system in process of decay, and the managing personnel who rely, on the contrary, on a technique whose development only keeps on increasing their power.

This rise of the bureaucratic element in industry is only the most characteristic aspect of an altogether general phenomenon. The essential thing about this phenomenon is a specialization increasing from day to day. The transformation that has taken place in industry, where skilled workmen capable of understanding and handling many types of machine have been replaced by specialized unskilled hands automatically trained to serve one type of machine only, is the image of a development which has occurred in every field. If the workers are becoming more and more lacking in technical knowledge, the technicians are not only often pretty ignorant of working practice, but furthermore their proficiency is in many cases limited to a quite restricted field; in America, they have even set about producing specialized engineers—just like ordinary unskilled men—in a certain category of machines, and, what is significant, the U.S.S.R. has hastened to copy America in this respect. Moreover, it goes without saying that the technicians are ignorant of the theoretical basis of the knowledge which they employ. The scientists, in their turn, not only remain out of touch with technical problems, but are furthermore entirely deprived of that general view of things which is the very essence of theoretical culture. One could count on one’s fingers the number of scientists throughout the world with a general idea of the history and development of their particular science: there is none who is really competent as regards sciences other than his own. As science forms an indivisible whole, one may say that there are no longer, strictly speaking, scientists, but only unskilled hands doing scientific work, cogs in a whole their minds are quite incapable of embracing.

Examples could be multiplied. In almost all fields, the individual, shut in within the bounds of a limited proficiency, finds himself caught up in a whole which is beyond him, by which he must regulate all his activity, and whose functioning he is unable to understand. In such a situation, there is one function which takes on a supreme importance, namely, that which consists simply in co-ordinating; we may call it the administrative or bureaucratic function. The speed with which bureaucracy has invaded almost every branch of human activity is something astounding once one thinks about it. The rationalized factory, where a man finds himself shorn, in the interests of a passive mechanism, of everything which makes for initiative, intelligence, knowledge, method, is as it were an image of our present-day society. For the bureaucratic machine, though composed of flesh, and of well-fed flesh at that, is none the less as irresponsible and as soulless as are machines made of iron and steel. The whole evolution of present-day society tends to develop the various forms of bureaucratic oppression and to give them a sort of autonomy in regard to capitalism as such. That is why it is our duty to define this new political factor more clearly than Marx was able to do.

As a matter of fact, Marx had perceived the force of oppression constituted by bureaucracy. He had seen perfectly well that the true obstacle to emancipatory reforms is not the system of exchange and of property, but “the bureaucratic and military machine” of the State. He had quite understood that the most disgraceful blot to be wiped out by socialism is not wage-earning, but “the degrading division between manual and intellectual work”, or, according to another formula, “the separation of the spiritual forces of labour from manual labour”. But Marx did not ask himself whether this was not a case of an order of problems independent of the problems presented by the operation of the capitalist economy properly so called. Although he had witnessed the division between property and management in capitalist enterprise, he did not ask himself whether the administrative function, in so far as it is permanent, might not, independently of all monopoly over property, give rise to a new class of oppressors. And yet, though one can see very well how a revolution can “expropriate the expropriators”, one cannot see how a method of production founded on the subordination of those who do the work to those who co-ordinate could do otherwise than produce automatically a social structure of which the distinguishing mark is the dictatorship of a bureaucratic caste. Not but what one can imagine a control and a system of rotation whereby equality in the State as well as in the actual process of industrial production could be restored; but, in point of fact, when a social stratum finds that it has any kind of monopoly in its hands, it preserves that monopoly until the very foundations on which it rests have been undermined by the historical process.

It was in this way that feudalism fell, not through the pressure of the lower orders themselves taking possession of armed force, but by the substitution of trade for war as the principal means of domination. In the same way, the social stratum of which the mark is the exercise of administrative functions will never consent, whatever the legal system of property may be, to allow the working masses access to those functions, to teach “every cook how to rule the State”, or every unskilled worker how to run the business. Every system characterized by the domination of one class over another in effect corresponds, historically, to the distinction between one dominant social function and one or several subordinate functions. Thus, in the Middle Ages, production was something subordinate as compared to the defence of the fields by armed force; at the next stage, production, having become essentially industrialized, found itself subordinated to distribution. Socialism will exist when the dominant function is productive labour itself; but this cannot happen as long as a system of production continues in which labour as such finds itself subordinated, by means of the machine, to the function consisting in co-ordination of labour. No expropriation can solve this problem, against which the heroism of the Russian workers was shattered. Abolishing the division of men into capitalists and proletarians does not in the least imply that “the separation of the spiritual forces of labour from manual labour” must disappear, even progressively.

The American technocrats have drawn an enchanting picture of a society in which, with the abolition of the market, technicians would find themselves all-powerful, and would use their power in such a way as to give to all the maximum leisure and comfort possible. This idea reminds us, by its utopianism, of that of enlightened despotism which our forefathers cherished. All exclusive, uncontrolled power becomes oppressive in the hands of those who have the monopoly of it. And we can already see very clearly how, within the capitalist system itself, the oppressive action of this new social stratum is taking shape. In the field of production, the bureaucracy, an irresponsible mechanism, brings about, as Laurat has observed in connection with the U.S.S.R., on the one hand an unlimited parasitism, and on the other an anarchy which, in spite of all the “plans”, is at least equal to that occasioned by capitalist competition. As for the relationships between production and consumption, it would be useless to hope that a bureaucratic caste, whether Russian or American, would restore them by subordinating the first to the second.

Every human group that exercises power does so, not in such a way as to bring happiness to those who are subject to it, but in such a way as to increase that power; it is a matter of life and death for any form of domination whatsoever. As long as production remained at a primitive stage of development, the question of power was decided by armed force. Economic changes transferred it to the plane of production itself; it was in this way that the capitalist system came into being. The development of the system later restored war as an essential means in the struggle for power, but under a different form; superiority in the armed struggle presupposes, nowadays, superiority in production itself. If the free play of competition is the final object of production in the hands of the capitalists, its final object in the hands of technicians organized into a State bureaucracy would necessarily be preparation for war. Besides, as Rousseau had already understood, no system of oppression is interested in the welfare of the oppressed; it is on their miserable condition that oppression can rest the more easily the whole of its weight.

As for the moral atmosphere that a régime of bureaucratic dictatorship can bring about, we can realize here and now what it can be like. Capitalism is only a system for exploiting productive work; if we leave out the proletariat’s efforts at emancipation, it has given full scope, in every branch of activity, to initiative, free enquiry, invention and genius. On the other hand, the bureaucratic machine, which excludes all judgment and all genius, tends, by its very structure, to concentrate all powers in itself. It therefore threatens the very existence of everything that still remains precious for us in the bourgeois régime. Instead of the clash of contrary opinions, we should have, on all subjects, an official opinion from which no one would be able to deviate; instead of the cynicism characteristic of the capitalist system, which severs all bonds between man and man in order to replace them by mere relationships of interest, a carefully cultivated fanaticism, calculated to make poverty, in the eyes of the masses, no longer a burden passively to be borne, but a sacrifice freely consented to; a mixture of mystical devotion and unbridled bestiality; a State religion that would stifle all individual values, that is to say all real values. The capitalist system, and even the feudal system, which, through the disorder which it involved, allowed here and there individuals and collectivities to develop in an independent manner, not to mention that blissful Greek system under which the slaves were at least employed in seeing to the wants of free men—all these forms of oppression appear as forms of a free and happy existence when compared with a system that would methodically destroy all initiative, all culture, all thought.

Are we really threatened with subjection to such a system? We are perhaps more than threatened with it; it seems as though we could see it taking shape before our eyes. War, which perpetuates itself under the form of preparation for war, has once and for all given the State an important role in production. Despite the fact that, even in the very heat of the struggle, the capitalists’ interests have often come before those of national defence—as the example of Briey shows—systematic preparation for war presupposes in the case of each State a certain regimentation of the economy, a certain tendency towards economic independence. On the other hand, in all spheres, bureaucracy has, since the war, increased in monstrous fashion. Certainly, bureaucracy has not yet turned itself into a system of oppression; if it has crept in everywhere, it nevertheless remains diffused, scattered about in a host of administrative organs which the free play itself of the capitalist system prevents from crystallizing around some central nucleus. Fried, the principal theorist of the review Die Tat, said in 1930: “We are practically speaking under the domination of the trade-union bureaucracy, the industrial bureaucracy and the State bureaucracy, and these three bureaucracies are so alike that any one of them could be put in place of another.” Now, under the influence of the crisis, these three bureaucracies are tending to merge into one single organization. It is what we see in America, where Roosevelt, under the influence of a band of technicians, is trying to fix prices and wages in agreement with the industrialists’ associations and the trade unions. It is what we see in Germany, where, with lightning rapidity, the State apparatus has taken over the trade-union apparatus and is tending to lay its hands on the economy. As for Russia, the three bureaucracies—State, capital industries and workers’ organizations—have long since constituted one and the same apparatus.

The question of the prospects lying ahead thus presents itself in two ways. On the one hand, in the case of Russia, where the working masses have expropriated owners and capitalists, the question is whether, without a civil war, the bureaucracy can wipe out the last vestiges of the conquests of October. It certainly seems as though we are compelled by the facts, in spite of Trotsky, to reply in the affirmative. As for other countries, we must consider whether in them capitalism as such can be destroyed without a similar expropriation, through a simple transformation in the meaning of property. On this point, the facts are far less clear. One can certainly say that already the capitalist system, strictly speaking, no longer exists. There is no longer, strictly speaking, a labour market. Regulation of wages and of engagement of labour, the labour corps, seem to be so many steps in the transformation of the wage-earning system into a new form of exploitation. It seems also that in Germany the commissioners placed by Hitler in the trusts and the big undertakings do, in fact, exercise dictatorial powers. The systematic abandonment of gold currency throughout the world is also an important phenomenon. Furthermore, we must bear in mind such facts as the “conclusion of the national revolution” in Germany and the setting up of a supreme economic council which includes all the industrial magnates. Nevertheless, the national-socialist movement is far from having shot its last bolt. The successive acts of surrender made by the bourgeoisie to this movement show well enough what the true relationship between the forces is. The way ownership and industrial management have become separated, which has transformed the majority of owners of capital into mere parasites, permits the use of slogans such as “the struggle against the servitude of interest”, which are anti-capitalist without being proletarian. As for the big industrial and financial magnates, their participation in the economic dictatorship of the State does not necessarily exclude the suppression of the part hitherto played by them in the economy. Finally, if political factors may be taken as signs of economic evolution, one cannot disregard the fact that all the political currents which now affect the masses, whether they style themselves fascist, socialist or communist, tend towards the same form of State capitalism. Only a few defenders of economic liberalism oppose this powerful tendency, but they become more and more timid and are less and less listened to. Few indeed are those among our comrades who remember that the workers’ democracy could also be set against it. With all these facts, and many others before us, we are obliged to ask ourselves frankly towards what kind of system the present crisis will lead us, if it continues, or, in the event of a rapid return to a favourable situation, the crises to come.

In face of a development of this kind, the worst lapse would be for ourselves to forget the goal we are aiming at. Already a great number of our comrades are more or less seriously infected by this lapse, and it threatens us all. Let us not forget that we want to make the individual, and not the collectivity, the supreme value. We want to form whole men by doing away with that specialization which cripples us all. We want to give to manual labour that dignity which belongs to it of right, by giving the workman the full understanding of technical processes instead of a mere mechanical training; and to provide the understanding with its proper object, by placing it in contact with the world through the medium of labour. We want to make abundantly clear the true relationships between man and nature—those relationships that are concealed, in every society based on exploitation, by “the degrading division of labour into intellectual and manual labour”. We want to give back to man, that is to say to the individual, the power which it is his proper function to exercise over nature, over tools, over society itself; to re-establish the importance of the workers as compared with material conditions of work; and, instead of doing away with private property, “to turn individual property into something real, by transforming the means of production . . . which at present serve above all to enslave and exploit labour, into mere instruments of labour freely and co-operatively performed”.

That is the proper task of our generation. For several centuries now, ever since the Renaissance, men of thought and men of action have laboured methodically to give the human mind mastery over the forces of nature; and their success has surpassed all expectations. But during the last century it came to be realized that society itself is a force of nature, as blind as the others, as dangerous for man if he does not succeed in mastering it. At the present time this force weighs upon us more cruelly than water, earth, air and fire; all the more so since it holds in its own grasp, as a result of technical progress, the control of water, earth, air and fire. The individual has found himself brutally deprived of the means of combat and of labour; neither war nor production is any longer possible without a total subordination of the individual to the collective industrial machine. Now the social mechanism, through its blind functioning, is in process—as everying that has happened since August 1914 shows—of destroying all the conditions for the material and moral well-being of the individual, all the conditions for intellectual and cultural development. To gain mastery over this mechanism is for us a matter of life and death; and to gain mastery over it means to subject it to the human mind, that is to the individual. In the subordination of society to the individual lies the definition of true democracy and that of socialism as well. But how are we to master this blind force, when it possesses, as Marx has shown in striking phrases, all the intellectual and moral forces crystallized in one monstrous machine? We should look in vain in Marxist literature for a reply to this question.

Are we, then, to despair? Certainly, we would not lack reasons for doing so. It is difficult to see wherein one could place one’s hopes. The ability to judge freely is becoming rarer and rarer, more especially in intellectual circles, owing to that specialization which forces each one of us, in the fundamental questions raised by each theoretical piece of research, to believe without understanding. Thus, even in the domain of pure theory, individual judgment finds itself invalidated in face of the results arrived at by collective effort. As for the working class, its position as a passive instrument of production hardly prepares it for taking its own destiny into its hands. The present generations were first of all decimated and demoralized by the war; then peace and prosperity, once restored, brought with them on the one hand a display of wealth and a fever for speculation which have deeply corrupted all classes of the population, and on the other hand technical changes which have deprived the working class of its main strength. For the hope of the revolutionary movement rested on the skilled workmen, the only ones who combined thought and action in industrial work, or who took an active and vital part in the carrying on of the undertaking; the only ones capable of feeling themselves ready to take over one day the responsibility for the whole of economic and political life. Indeed, they formed the most solid nucleus of the revolutionary organizations. And now rationalization has done away with their function and has barely left more than specialized unskilled workmen, completely enslaved to the machine. Then came unemployment, which descended upon the working class thus crippled without producing any reaction. If it has exterminated fewer men than did the war, it has brought about a far more profound demoralization, by reducing great masses of workers, and in particular the whole of the younger generation, to a parasitic condition which, through being prolonged, has come in the end to seem permanent to those who are its victims. The workers who have remained in the factories have at length come themselves to consider the work they do, no longer as an activity indispensible to production, but as a favour granted them by the undertaking. Thus unemployment, where it is most widespread, ends up by reducing the proletariat as a whole to a parasitic frame of mind. It is true that prosperity may return, but no prosperity can now save those generations that have spent their adolescence and youth in a state of idleness more exhausting than work itself, or preserve the coming generations from another crisis or another war.

Can the workers’ organizations give the proletariat the strength it lacks? The very complexity of the capitalist system, and consequently of the problems that the struggle to be waged against it raises, carries into the very heart of the working-class movement “the degrading division of labour into manual and intellectual labour”. Spontaneous struggle has always proved itself to be ineffective, and organized action almost automatically secretes an administrative apparatus which, sooner or later, becomes oppressive. Nowadays, such oppression is accomplished in the form of an organic liaison either with the national State apparatus or with the Russian State apparatus. Consequently, our 20 oppression and liberty efforts run the risk not only of remaining ineffectual, but also of turning themselves against us, to the advantage of our arch-enemy, fascism. The work of agitation, by fanning revolt to white heat, can serve the cause of fascist demagogy, as the example of the German communist party shows. The work of organization, by fostering bureaucracy, can also promote the advent of fascism, as the example of social-democracy shows. Militants cannot take the place of the working class. The emancipation of the workers will be carried out by the workers themselves, or it will not take place at all. Now the most tragic fact of the present time is that the industrial crisis affects the proletariat more profoundly than it does the capitalist class, so that it seems to be not merely the crisis of a system, but of our society itself.

These views will no doubt be taxed with defeatism, even by comrades who endeavour to see clearly. It is doubtful, however, whether we gain anything by using in our ranks the vocabulary of the general staff. With us the very word discouragement ought to have no meaning. The only question that arises is whether we should or should not continue the struggle; if the former, then we shall struggle with as much enthusiasm as if victory were assured. There is no difficulty whatever, once one has decided to act, in maintaining intact, on the level of action, those very hopes which a critical examination has shown to be wellnigh unfounded; in that lies the very essence of courage. Now, seeing that a defeat would run the risk of destroying, for an indefinite period, everything which lends value to human life in our eyes, it is obvious that we must struggle by every means which seems to us to have some chance of proving effective. A man who is thrown overboard in the middle of the ocean ought not to let himself drown, even though there is very little chance of his reaching safety, but to go on swimming until exhausted. And we are not really without hope. The mere fact that we exist, that we conceive and want something different from what exists, constitutes for us a reason for hoping. The working class still contains, scattered here and there, to a large extent outside organized labour, an élite of workers, inspired by that force of mind and spirit that is found only among the proletariat, ready, if need be, to devote themselves wholeheartedly, with the resolution and conscientiousness that a good workman puts into his work, to the building of a rational society. If circumstances are propitious, a spontaneous movement of the masses can carry them to the front of the stage of history. In the meantime, one can only help them to prepare themselves, to think things out, to acquire influence in the workers’ organizations that still remain living, that is to say, in the case of France, in the unions, and lastly to band together for the purpose of carrying out, in the streets or in the factories, such actions as are still possible in spite of the present apathy of the masses. An effort tending towards the grouping together of all that has remained healthy at the very heart of industrial undertakings, avoiding both the stirring up of primitive feelings of revolt and the crystallization of an administrative apparatus, may not be much, but there is nothing else. The only hope of socialism resides in those who have already brought about in themselves, as far as is possible in the society of today, that union between manual and intellectual labour which characterizes the society we are aiming at.

But, in addition to this task, the extreme inadequacy of the arms we have at our disposal compels us to undertake another. If, as is only too possible, we are to perish, let us see to it that we do not perish without having existed. The powerful forces that we have to fight are preparing to crush us; and it is true that they can prevent us from existing fully, that is to say from stamping the world with the seal of our will. But there is one sphere in which they are powerless. They cannot stop us from working towards a clear comprehension of the object of our efforts, so that, if we cannot accomplish that which we will, we may at least have willed it, and not just have blindly wished for it; and, on the other hand, our weakness may indeed prevent us from winning, but not from comprehending the force by which we are crushed. Nothing in the world can prevent us from thinking clearly.

There is no contradiction whatever between this task of theoretical elucidation and the tasks set by the actual struggle; on the contrary, there is a correlation, since one cannot act without knowing what one intends and what obstacles have to be overcome. Nevertheless, since the time at our disposal is in any case limited, we are forced to divide it between thought and action, or, to talk more modestly, preparation for action. It is not by any set rule that this division can be determined, but only by the temperament, turn of mind and natural gifts of each one, by the conjectures each one forms about the future, by the chance play of circumstances. At all events, the greatest calamity that could befall us would be to perish incapable both of winning and of understanding.

(Revolution prolétarienne, No.158, 25th August, 1933.)

(From Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty. Trans. Arthur Wills and John Petrie. London and New York: Routledge, 1958.)

This entry was posted in Commentary and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.